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New York's Southern Tier avoided the first COVID-19 outbreak. Now it's getting hit.

Jeff Platsky
New York State Team

BINGHAMTON – While New York's Southern Tier dodged the worst of the coronavirus outbreak through the spring and summer, fall's start has been far worse.

If counties stretching across New York's border with Pennsylvania were states, many would have been added to the state's mandatory quarantine travel list, exceeding 10 average daily positive cases per 100,000 residents over the prior week. 

New daily positive cases the across the region on a seven day rolling average range from a high of 40 per 100,000 residents in Chemung County, where a church has been identified as source of super spreaders, to seven in Chautauqua.

Six of New York's 10 most infected counties are in the Southern Tier or are contiguous to it. The numbers represent a striking reversal for a region that, because of a low infection rate, was one of the first to exit initial restrictions implemented when the virus first spread throughout New York.

"The clusters are generating the new cases proportionately, because that's what clusters do," Gov. Andrew Cuomo said in a Sunday COVID briefing.

Southern Tier cases outpace rest of state

A Broome County Transit bus was converted into a mobile COVID-19 testing site as cases surge in the county.

In Broome County, 495 new cases were reported between Oct. 4 and Oct. 11; 237 reported in Chemung; 156 in Steuben; and 71 in Tioga, according to state numbers, some of the highest totals since virus outbreaks first appeared in March.

Recent positive virus trends in the Tier outpace those in higher density regions such as New York City's boroughs, Albany and Rochester, and much of the rest of the state where the virus has largely been held in check.

Cuomo issued a warning about the consequences of the most recent outbreaks.

"We know what happens," Cuomo said Sunday. "People get the virus, people get sick, people go into the hospital, people die. That is the trajectory."

Counties with high cases per 100,000 residents on a seven day rolling average  include Chemung, 285; Broome, 269; Rockland, 215; Cortland and Steuben, both at 164; Tioga, 147; Orange, 116; and Schuyler, 90."

As a region, the Southern Tier had the highest infection rate at 23.8 per 100,000 residents, three times the state average, followed by Mid-Hudson at 11 and Central New York at 7.3, according to figures compiled by New York.

"The numbers are pretty striking," said Bill Hammond,  senior fellow for health policy at the Albany-based  Empire Center. "It's unique in the state. It's having a rougher time than March and April".

Monday, the Tompkins County Board of Health recorded its first death of a county resident.

"The individual was admitted to Cayuga Medical Center on October 6, and passed away from complications related to the disease on October 12,"  Samantha Hillson of the health department said in a press release. "The individual was admitted to Cayuga Medical Center on October 6, and passed away from complications related to the disease on October 12."

Tompkins County has the lowest infection rate of any Southern Tier county, with two of 8,475 tested on Sunday positive.

Positive test rate higher than rest of state, too

Brian Haarer, an assistant professor of biochemistry and microbiology, works in a lab at the State University of New York Upstate Medical University that conducts COVID-19 pooled surveillance testing for all SUNY schools and a variety of other colleges across the state. Tuesday, Sept. 22, 2020.

Positive results for individual counties rival states such as Utah and Idaho, where some of the worst outbreaks in the nation are now occurring.

Sunday's results continued to show high positive rates against the number tested: 6.7%, Chemung; 5.2% Steuben; 3.4%, Tioga; and 3.1%, Broome.

Cuomo has drawn comparisons to other states to try to put the state's recent numbers into perspective.

New York's test positivity rate, for example, has hovered around 1% in recent days, buoyed in part by the state's strong testing plan. Even in state-identified "clusters" in Brooklyn, Queens, Rockland and Orange counties, the rate was 3.7% Monday.

Other states have seen 10% or more of their COVID-19 tests come back positive, Cuomo noted.

"It's not a national hot spot," Cuomo said on a conference call Monday. "Nationwide those numbers are better than many states. Only relative to New York do we consider it a micro-cluster. Only when you're at 1% does 3% seem like an issue. Most of these other states would celebrate if they had 3%."

Late last week, New York designated a portion of Broome County a "Yellow Zone," with restrictions on restaurants and public gatherings including houses of worship.

 As part of the two-week restriction period, schools in the zone can remain open, but weekly testing of students and staff is required. Binghamton University reverted to all remote classes last week.

"There's this phenomenon called pandemic fatigue," Hammond said. "The longer it lasts the harder it is to maintain discipline."

Health officials urge caution

The check in point at Broome County's Mobile Covid-19 Testing Site, located in the parking lot of St. Patrick's Church on Leroy St. in Binghamton. A recent surge of Covid-19 has been detected on the West Side of Binghamton.

Health officials across the Tier have urged residents to take extra precautions to guard against the virus by avoiding social situation with more than four persons and observe physical distancing and facemask protocols.

To combat the Binghamton cluster, the state rolled out rapid-testing equipment at St. Partick's Church on the West Side, supplementing an existing conventional testing site on the Binghamton University campus.

Saturday positives test results were trending downward in all but Steuben. Broome County's active cases dropped from a historic high of 694 Friday, 650 Saturday to 616 Sunday. Hospitalizations declined to nine from a mid-week total of 13.

Binghamton remained the epicenter for the virus with 192 active cases, followed by Vestal, 106; Town of Union, 75; Town of Chenango 45; Johnson City 35.

Within the past week, Broome County posted 11 public health notices warning persons exposed to the virus.

Yellow zone explained:COVID-19 Yellow Zone: Broome County schools still waiting for weekly testing guidelines

Business fallout:Red Oak Restaurant has closed, citing a challenging year for small business

Cluster panic:Will NY contain COVID-19 clusters? Here's what experts say about avoiding second wave

Includes reporting by USA TODAY Network New York reporter Jon Campbell.

Jeff Platsky covers transportation and the economy for the USA TODAY Network New York. He can be reached at JPLATSKY@Gannett.com and followed on Twitter: @JeffPlatsky. To get unlimited access to the latest news, please subscribe or activate your digital account today.